All through the first half of the book, I was thinking this probably deserved three stars. But by the end, I awarded it four stars on Goodreads. So if you feel tempted to give up mid-way, don’t.
At the heart of the book is a family-run cafe on a small, remote island called Castellamare, near Sicily. The book traces the history of this family through four generations, beginning with the family patriarch, Amedeo. A physician by training, he come to the island to be the only local doctor but, because of a few bad decisions coupled with much local prejudice, he winds up taking over the cafe. He falls in love with both the island and a local woman and his family takes root.
As much as this is a story of Amedeo’s and his descendants, it’s also a story of the small island, which operates like any small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. There is a lot of gossiping and people are quick to make and hold onto judgements about others. And everywhere, there are secrets, many of which are ONLY shared at the cafe. There is also deep love and commitment.
At the start of the novel, the island remains isolated, removed from the most of the trappings and advances of western civilization. Then, slowly, as years pass, more and more of the outside world begins to intrude (including tourism) on what was a simple, farming-based way of life, under the thumb of a wealthy but cruel count. As outside influences come into play, the residents of Castellamare slowly change, expecting more. There are intense personal rivalries, new business competition, and a growing desire, especially among the young, to sample the world beyond the island.
The cast of characters is varied. From the wealthy count and his largely ignored wife, to a World War II prisoner-turned poet, to a wounded English soldier. Catherine Banner does an exceptional job of exploring the nature of all sorts of relationships — among siblings, between former and current lovers, and even how unrelated people can sometimes form powerful bounds even stronger than those of family.
It’s quite a lovely portrait of what is lost and what is gained when the modern world encroaches on a remote and isolated group of tightly-connected people.
A very promising book from a young author. More about Catherine Banner.